Sales coaching is the key to sales success and improving the performance of the sales organization. It is the most important job a sales manager has. Here, we explore how sales and learning leaders can drive sustained performance and growth through a pervasive coaching culture.

A team goal simply can’t be achieved by one single sales manager. Yet, we often see sales managers making Herculean efforts and resorting to hero tactics to win deals for their team members. Many times, they are putting in the longest hours — more than their direct reports. They put themselves in front of the customer when the stakes are high.

WHY COACH?

Accelerate Learning. Regardless of whether you manage new sellers or seasoned veterans, the world is constantly changing. Customers are constantly changing. The competitive environment is constantly changing. Everyone needs ways to overcome challenges and reach success faster.

Achieve Behavior Change. Trying new skills and strategies can feel uncomfortable and risky. It’s easy to slip back into old habits quickly. To achieve permanent behavior change, team members need ongoing, consistent support and feedback.

Improve Results. All businesses face pressure to increase goals and to achieve more with less. By accelerating learning and affecting permanent behavior change, you position your team members to achieve and exceed goals.

Most managers tend to focus on results. They focus on the numbers. Here’s where there needs to be a shift in mindset. Coaching is not about numbers. Coaching is about learning and behavior change. If you accelerate learning and affect permanent behavior change, the numbers will come.

THE BARRIERS

So, if the path to sales success is driven through the team and coaching is so critical, then why is it so hard to build a sustained coaching culture? In our work with thousands of front-line sales managers, we have heard every reason — not enough time, too many competing priorities, lack of trust in the team, etc. And yet, when you peel those reasons away, the problem persists. Let’s look closer.

Sales Managers Often Can’t See the Forest for The Trees

Leading a sales team is about balancing the long- and short-term priorities to set the team up for sustained success. A sales manager needs a team of sellers who are accountable, engaged and independent; and yet, building that kind of team means taking a strategic approach to high performance.

Most sales managers are primarily focused on numbers and often fall back to tactics and behaviors that might save the month but will prevent long-term, sustained growth. Many managers think they are effectively coaching when in fact, they are not — they are directing, telling, and often doing the work themselves.

The problem with telling and fixing is:

  • It doesn’t help the team member to learn how to better problem-solve for himself.
  • It creates dependence on the manager rather than accelerating learning around how to independently prevent or fix issues in the future.
  • It helps to solve an immediate problem, but doesn’t build the team member’s competence to become more independent in the long-run.
  • It doesn’t create buy-in for the solution.
  • It takes ownership and accountability away from the team member and places it on the manager.

The manager gets stuck in a vicious cycle of doing the problem-solving and fixing for the team member in order to achieve the numbers, rather than focusing on accelerating learning and affecting behavior change.

Our Innate Propensity To “Tell”

Sales managers are used to telling, and the propensity to tell is very strong because 1) Having the right answer makes them feel like the hero, and naturally, being a hero feels good; and 2) It can seem quicker and easier to tell someone what to do rather than to collaboratively assess and help someone self-discover. To be motivated to change their behavior, many managers must recognize that telling does not change behavior or help people become more self-reliant.

Even the best sales managers can fall victim to sellers on their teams who consciously or unconsciously encourage “telling.” In some cases, they are pressure testing a new manager, and in other cases, they are transferring ownership of the issue to the manager rather than taking ownership and accountability for it themselves.

Natural Defensiveness

Because our brains see criticism as a threat to our safety and survival, receiving feedback has both a physical and mental effect on us. Negativity bias explains why unpleasant remarks and experiences stick with us much more than nice ones. Our brains process bad information more thoroughly than positive information. Over time, we build up a propensity to think the worst, which can put us on the defensive.

It’s no wonder we struggle to give and receive feedback. But feedback is an integral part of growth and the learning process. We all have blind spots and can benefit from an outside perspective to make adjustments and remove obstacles.

Don’t Know What Great Coaching Looks Like

It is tough to do something when you have never seen it done well. It’s even harder to do something well when we don’t understand it or when we have a false understanding of what good looks like. Given that we have the natural propensity to tell and make short-term decisions based on revenue pressures, it’s no wonder that there aren’t a lot of truly great coaches running around.

Lack of Precision

Like any good diagnosis and prescription, the more specificity, the better. Yet, many managers are too vague or generic in their feedback. Have you ever given or received feedback that sounds like, “Next time, you need to be more prepared”? That feedback lacks the clarity and specificity of exactly what the receiver should do differently the next time. Missing the opportunity to give precise feedback is like dropping the ball right before the goal.

A DIFFERENT APPROACH

Making the transition to more effective coaching typically involves changing the conversation. It’s not about having more conversations. It’s about changing the dynamics of the conversation from telling and directing to collaborative problem-solving, where you help team members self-assess and self-discover ways to leverage strengths and improve performance.

Excellence in Developmental Sales Coaching: Core Tenets

Let’s begin with the core tenets that underpin Richardson’s sales coaching methodology:

  • Salespeople should be involved and responsible for their own performance and development.
  • Every person has blind spots that cannot be seen clearly or completely. To see a full, sharp picture, everyone needs an outside perspective.
  • A successful coaching interaction opens perspective for both the salesperson and the sales manager.
  • The sales manager’s role as coach is to be a thought partner and resource, to ask questions, listen and learn. They also offer perspectives with the goal of helping the team member gain insight and inspiration to grow and strengthen performance.
  • Trust is essential. While the focus of the conversation is on the business issues, the essence of a coaching interaction can be deeply personal and emotional. The salesperson must trust that the sales manager’s intent is to help and support, not criticize, judge, or control.

Excellence in Developmental Sales Coaching: Guiding Principles

The goal of developmental sales coaching is to create an environment where team members feel self- motivated to grow, excel and take greater responsibility for what they do.

Ensure that the seller talks first, last and the most. Developmental sales coaching helps sellers move toward more self-motivated behavior because it meets our inherent psychological needs for:

Autonomy: Asking questions to help sellers self-assess and self-discover ways to improve performance gives team members a better sense of control versus telling them what to do.

Relatedness: Creating a safe, nonjudgmental environment to learn and grow builds trust and strengthens relationships.

Competence: Focusing on addressing performance needs helps the seller to feel mastery over their work environment and increases their confidence.

Ask more than tell: The heart of the coaching conversation lies in the manager’s ability to engage in a collaborative process to help sellers self-assess and self-discover ways to leverage strengths and improve performance through effective problem-solving. Coaching by asking shows respect for the team member, opens conversations that reveal more and better information for both the manager and seller to accurately diagnose needs, increases seller ownership of and buy-in to the solution, and helps sellers become stronger problem-solvers and more independent by using the process itself to self-coach.

Ensure the right issue gets solved. Diagnose before prescribing; behind every performance gap lies an underlying root issue that is the true blocker to improved performance. Identifying and agreeing on the performance gap or opportunity is only the starting point. A manager must take the next step to identify the root issue that is preventing the desired behavior before identifying a solution.

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